HOUSTON – The Friday afternoon swirl in the lobby of the downtown Hilton Hotel was something this place had never quite seen before. This is the kind of hotel used to check-ins, checkouts and quiet business travelers – not the rolling, raucous party that the Super Bowl commands.
The place was jammed like Noah's Ark: two of everything. There were current NFL players and ex-NFL players. Punks and drunks. Hookers and lookers. There was a fight between two guys from New England that were, as the story goes, actually friends. There was a guy in a Panthers jersey with a mullet that could only be described as world class. There was a salsa band belting out tunes to high-society types and low-dog football fans.
And it was only four in the afternoon.
There even were workers from the NFL Experience across the street using their break to knock down a couple drinks.
"What's the worst thing that can happen, we get fired?" said Jennifer Donia, enjoying a white wine with co-worker Melody Campbell. "The job ends [Saturday] anyway."
The thing about the Super Bowl scene is that although so much of the focus is on the big parties – the Commissioner's Ball, Maxim, Playboy – it is the little bashes that rage 24/7 in the most unlikely of spots that make it special.
In the midst of this circus sat a clean-cut, late-30s white guy in jeans and a sweatshirt hunched over a quiet table with a seating chart of Reliant Stadium and a buzzing cell phone.
If everyone else is here to play, Paul Incerto, and so many ticket brokers just like him, are all about business.
The Super Bowl for the football players starts Sunday at 6:25 p.m. ET, but for anyone in the ticket business it ends at 6:24 p.m.
"You can either make a lot of money by then," said Incerto as he sipped a Diet Coke. "Or lose a lot of money."
Incerto owns the Southport, Conn.-based TrueNorthTickets.com, and the coming hours can make or break his winter. Along with Jim Cardamone, a seasoned employee, he is trying to predict the very volatile futures market on tickets, which Incerto sells, buys and sells again.
He has about 20 tickets to Sunday's game already contracted out to customers at a set price. If he can get those tickets below what he is selling them, then he wins big. If not, he loses. He also has other customers still considering and potential deals that may or may not come through.
He could make more than a $25,000 profit in the next two days or, potentially, lose that much.
Earlier this week he had a celebrity client call looking for eight prime seats. He ran the price up to $6,000 apiece only to lose the sale to someone else who offered $5,000.
"They said they weren't dealing with someone else," said Incerto, who would have made about $15,000 profit. "I got greedy."
As we sat and talked he got an offer to buy a single ticket for a grand, a steal of a price. But at the last second he realized it was a counterfeit ticket, although it was close enough to the real thing that a less experienced person would fall for it.
So it's win some, lose some.
There are some ticket laws at play here, but Incerto neither knows them nor cares. "Whether it's legal or not it's going to happen," he said.
This is straight capitalism with a chaser of greed. Buy low and sell high. Ride the anticipated run-up of ticket prices, which naturally occurs as fence-sitters finally buy, and then try to get out at the peak.
Meanwhile, you work the opposite market trend and try to horde tickets when prices are low or the seller isn't aware of market trends (which is why you can't walk three steps in Houston without being asked if you are selling tickets).
It's a bleeding ulcer of a job.
"I know a guy who has 500 tickets right now," said Incerto, shaking his head with a bit of pity for a competitor who may have bought too early.
Do the math. If he paid an average of a $1,500 a ticket (a reasonable estimate), he has three-quarters of a million on the table. If the market drops from Friday afternoon – when it was $1,300 for a bad seat, $2,250 for a good one – that guy is looking for a bridge to jump off.
"The most stressful moment is kickoff ... if you still have 50 tickets," Cardamone said.
Both shudder at the memory of the 2002 Super Bowl between New England and St. Louis, when the post-Sept. 11 ticket market fell to $400 per seat at kickoff (some went even lower) and just about everyone took a bath. A year later in San Diego, fueled by Los Angeles money, the average price approached $2,000.
With this one, it remains to be seen.
Both guys wish Philadelphia had beaten Carolina in the NFC title game. Eagle fans are both numerous and passionate. Panther fans are neither, outnumbered here in Houston three- or four-to-one by Patriot supporters. Plus Charlotte isn't a big, wealthy, corporate town like New York, Chicago or Dallas.
"I don't think Carolina is a money maker," said Cardamone. "If Green Bay or Philly were here, it's money. Same with the Giants or anything New York. If it's the Cowboys, then you and me can't count it in our heads. But who are the Panthers?"
So they sit and wait for the market to move and deals to be made. At this moment everyone is in a circling pattern. Things could go up, things could go down; either way they play the angles and hope the ensuing hurricane works out. In the midst of the biggest party Texas has seen in decades, there is plenty of business being done.
One ticket at a time.
The most coveted ticket of the Super Bowl is not a ticket to the Super Bowl. It is a way into the event's best party – the Maxim magazine bash that, in just four short years, has taken on a life of its own. Only 1,000 people get invited, and the stars, the scene and the scenery are simply unreal.
I've been to a lot of parties in a lot of places, and I have never seen anything quite like this.
But before we get to the details, let's start with the basics that everyone wants to know, the celebs.
Paris Hilton: Better looking and not as rail thin as we thought.
Nicole Richie: Would look a lot better if she stopped dressing like Paris Hilton.
Nikki Hilton: Hair dyed black and wearing a conservative gown, appears to be distancing herself from big sister. Expect a Jan Brady – "Paris, Paris, Paris" – meltdown soon.
Jimmy Fallon: Apparently wears his hair crazy all the time, not just for Weekend Update.
Janet Jackson: Still hot.
Jermaine Jackson: Still not.
Nick Lachey: Wins our respect for standing in line to get his own beer.
Elisha Cuthbert (perhaps best known as the high school girl in "Old School"): Wore way too much makeup and is very, very thin.
Dave Navarro: Seems cool, has C.E. (Carmen Electra) tattooed on his chest and a Louis Vuitton shoulder strap on his guitar.
Coors Light twins: Shockingly not good looking. Completely ruins that commercial forever.
In terms of celebrity turnout, that was about it. Not exactly A material; basically a bunch of people who should thank their lucky stars that reality television became popular.
More entertaining was the delicious blend of C-grade and beyond celebs such as Mrs. Rod Tidwell, one of the girls from "Beg, Borrow & Deal", Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated and the guy who started the "Girls Gone Wild" video series and is being sued by all of the girls.
There also were a ton of NFL stars, a few NBA ones (the Nets are in town) and, of course, Deion Sanders. Because this was, indeed, Prime Time.
The real attraction to this party is everything else. Like the double-secret routine it took to get there. Unless you were one of the celebs and came in a limo, there were no invitations and no directions. You had to go to the Hotel Icon in downtown Houston where you got a wristband, a glow-in-the-dark stamp and a seat on a bus that drove you halfway to San Antonio.
Eventually the bus stopped in the middle of a field in Stafford, Texas. The theme of the party was Circus Maximus. They had set up a number of big tents, a Ferris wheel and an Old West main street all in an effort to simulate a state fair theme. It was impressive. Different tents had different themes (a circus big top, an Old West casino and so on), there were bars everywhere and the details in the design made it just an unbelievable setup. We are talking about a multi-acre party area. Just wandering around looking at what they built for a single party was incredible.
Inside the big tent were circus acts including a fire-eater, a sword-swallower and a trapeze act. But the women were the real show. If this was not the finest collection of beautiful women in the history of Texas then someone is going to have to prove it. I don't know where they found them all, but then again, we are talking about the good folks at Maxim.
It was so over the top that if Michael Jackson had accompanied Janet and Jermaine even he might have been interested.
You almost felt bad for some of the regular pretty girls who were all dolled up. The ones that, back in their own hometown, club or circle of friends are considered the hot chick. Instead they looked around, saw their boyfriend looking around and were completely deflated by the reality of the big leagues.
Supposedly there were at least three women at the party who had not undergone some form of augmentation, but we'd have to see documentation before printing that as fact. In terms of outfits, we've seen more cloth on a napkin.
Let's put it this way. We don't normally write columns where we spend three paragraphs talking about how good looking the women were. But we cannot, in good conscience, begin to describe the party without doing so.
Anyway, just when you thought this was all plenty of entertainment and it wasn't going to get any better, out came the band Camp Freddy, which is made up of Navarro (Jane's Addiction), Billy Morris (The Cult), Matt Sorum (Guns 'n Roses) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) among others.
And they rocked the big tent for over an hour.
It was just that kind of night. Little ole Stafford may never be the same.
VALUED READER EMAILS OF THE DAY
My comments in italics.
Dan – Really appreciated your article on Houston. We are really trying hard here to show the country a good time, despite much complaining from some. Your article helped put things in perspective I think. Keep up the good work. I am now a fan of your columns.
Dan – Just wanted to say I enjoy your articles. Also, regarding the "silent game," that was the Jets vs. Miami sometime back in the '80s and broadcast at least on WNBC in N.Y. After that game, I started muting the sound and listening to music during games.
The Main Event, the blocked-off parts of downtown Houston, was alive and cranking deep into the early morning hours as bands, bars and street performers rocked. There is nothing like a big game to make total strangers new best friends just because they both are wearing He Hate Me shirts.
We also finally got the chance to tour the NFL Experience on Friday afternoon at the George Brown Convention Center. The Experience spans more than 800,000 square feet and has all sorts of football participatory games and fun things to do for an entire family. If you are 10 and like football, this place is heaven.
How about that? We got through an entire column without talking about the game.